A train advocacy group has decided not to appeal a federal agency’s decision that it has no jurisdiction over the New Jersey Transit train line. The advocacy group says it fears the possible unintended consequences of a court decision for urban rail corridors across the country.
The New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers will not appeal the U.S. Surface Transportation Board decision that New Jersey Transit is immune from federal review regarding the Princeton Branch, also known as the Princeton Dinky line. The Surface Transportation Board ruled in July 24 that New Jersey Transit is exempt from federal oversight.
“We made the decision not to appeal to the courts with reluctance. The Surface Transportation Board decision is shortsighted and sets a dangerous precedent for the conversion of a rail corridor to non-rail use simply because the land is more valuable for private development,” said NJ-ARP President Len Resto. “We are going to live with a legally flawed administrative decision and not risk setting it in stone in a court precedent that might have greater adverse impacts on public rail corridors at the national level.”
Two lawsuits filed by residents and the group Save the Dinky are still active at the New Jersey Appellate Division level. One suit challenges the contract between New Jersey Transit and Princeton University for the sale of the historic Dinky Station and land surrounding the station. The other lawsuit challenges the legality of New Jersey Transit’s decision to truncate the Princeton Branch without any public hearing. Two other suits, filed by individual residents, are still active regarding the zoning changes and the site plan approval for Princeton University’s $300 million arts and transit project.
“NJ-ARP’s position from the very beginning was that compromising the Princeton rail corridor was both bad policy and bad politics,” Resto said. “The facts are that Governor Chris Christie, who sits on Princeton University’s Board of Trustees and has a great deal of control over New Jersey Transit through his appointments and veto power, has acted on the University’s behalf to the detriment of NJ Transit and its riders. We are not impressed with NJ Transit’s protestations that the University’s actions would be good for ridership — the facts show that ridership has declined substantially since service was withdrawn from the former Princeton Station last August — but we can appreciate the need for their executive team and directors to toe the University’s line in order to keep their jobs. It is for this reason that we are especially conflicted in our decision to refrain from an appeal before the Surface Transportation Board. We have done the moral calculus, however, and come away with the conclusion that, in the grand scheme of things, we have done the right thing. We regret that we cannot say the same about Princeton University and its Trustee, Governor Chris Christie.”
The Princeton Branch connects Princeton to Northeast corridor trains at Princeton Junction and has been in public transportation use for over a century. In 1984, NJ Transit sold the Princeton Station and associated land to Princeton University but retained operating control and an easement over the land that guaranteed a direct rail transportation right of way to a public street on the edge of Princeton’s historic district. Under New Jersey Transit’s arrangement with Princeton University, it is relinquishing the easement in exchange for one of lesser value over University land farther from town.
Resto says New Jersey Transit’s decision to give up property rights that secure public transit is “catastrophically bad public policy that defies everything we know about sound transit planning and marketing. Once train corridors are lost it is tremendously expensive, if not impossible, to replace them.”
“As other rail corridors have demonstrated, while no one can predict the infrastructure needs of the future, in the long run significant and strategic value often exists in their retention. Regional examples include New Jersey’s Lackawanna Cutoff, the Poughkeepsie Bridge and most prominently, Manhattan’s West Side Freight Line,” Resto said. “In the case of the latter, despite efforts to remove it for the short-term benefit of real estate development, it has emerged with a portfolio of uses that were never contemplated at its time of abandonment as a freight line — specifically, the Empire Connection which has allowed Amtrak passenger service from Albany to access Penn Station and connect directly with the Northeast Corridor, and at the same time the development of “High Line” park. The High Line Park is possibly the most high-profile example in this country of the repurposing of a rail corridor in a manner never contemplated at the beginning of the fight to preserve it.”
Resto said the STB decision was too narrow, in that it treated the Princeton corridor as a mass transit link, as opposed to a strategic link to the national rail network.
“On this legal basis, we believe that the STB decision is problematic because the `short-haul’ and ‘long haul’ distinction is novel, and may well have been made up on the spot,” Resto said. “On the facts, the STB is simply wrong. Princeton offers through ticketing to Newark Airport, New York City and Philadelphia, and the branch has been a part of the national rail system for over a century. For these and other reasons we feel that an appeal has merit, but reluctantly will not pursue that course due to concern that a further set of decisions unduly favoring real estate development could have impact at the national level.”
Princeton University officials have said the station move is necessary for the arts and transit project, and in order to create a second access road to the school’s parking deck. Officials said they looked at all the other alternatives, which they determined to be unfeasible, before making the decision to move the station. The new station will be located about 460 feet south of the old station. The historic Dinky station buildings will be converted into a restaurant and a cafe.